Don't you wonder sometimes how some people are able to navigate challenges and adversity in life while maintaining a positive mental attitude and holding space open for growth without getting stuck in the "O, woe is me", mentality, or overdramatizing the situation, or just plain getting stuck in the muck?
Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as founder and chair of the Center for Healthy Minds has researched the topic of cultivating well-being (partially defined as happiness) and is highly regarded throughout the world. Dr. Davidson is adamant that well-being is a skill that we can all learn and I definitely agree! He details four constituents of well-being that have been extensively investigated neuroscientifically (see my post from March 15, 2016), one of which is resilience. He defines resilience as how quickly we recover from adversity.
He describes resiliency in regard to stickiness...which is how much we let a negative emotion bleed over into other events, experiences and areas of our life. He referred to it as getting stuck in the muck. He shared that adversity happens, that life happens, and your stickiness is what either causes you to be resilient, to bounce back and recover, or to get stuck in the negative emotion of the experience.
Gabrielle Bernstein puts it this way, "You can't control all of your experiences in life, but you can control how you experience them." What matters is whether we let the adversity become traumatizing. The good news is that we can learn how to be more resilient. We can learn to deal with adversity more effectively by how we frame it.
George Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College, he has been studying resilience for nearly twenty-five years. One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception...Do you see an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic. We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno said.
In research at Columbia, neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of adversity in a different way...to reframe it in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally charged...changes how we experience and react to the adversity. We can train ourselves to better regulate our emotions.
The opposite can also be true. “We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” Human beings tend to worry, we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, driving ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. I know that I have done this, have you? Sometimes we nurse it, curse it, and rehearse it over and over again. We allow ourselves to get caught up in the drama and overdramatize the situation.
If we frame adversity as a challenge, we become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. If we focus on it, frame it as a threat, then a potentially traumatic event becomes a lasting problem. We become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected, to get stuck in the muck. Being resilient is an intentional practice. A practice that, like a muscle, becomes stronger the more we practice it.
A key strategy for strengthening your resilience is to have a meditation or mindfulness practice. Being aware of your emotions and being present through a meditation practice allows us to better regulate our emotions. We can then reframe adversity causing us to have less stickiness and more resilience.